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New York wine trade reports lingering ill will toward French wines

The war in Iraq has diverted US public attention away from France’s hostility to American policy. Yet in Manhattan retailers and restaurateurs report a small measure of lingering hostility to French wine in reprisal, though there’s no evidence that public irritation could coalesce into anything like a boycott.

Merchants and restaurateurs are seeing a general decline in business, but say it is hard to decipher how much of it is due to the weak economy, to the pall the war has spread, to a sense that festivity is inappropriate when Americans are being killed or to people’s concern about personal security.

Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehmann, an upmarket store on Manhattan’s luxurious East Side, says February sales of French wines were up 12% over comparable sales a year ago. ‘But since the war started, the overall volume of everything has gone down,’ he says. ‘My fear is that if Jacques Chirac doesn’t change his position, he’ll hurt the French farmers terribly in the long run,’ Aaron says.

Richard Dean, a master sommelier and the beverage manager at The Mark, a smart hotel and restaurant a few blocks up Madison Avenue from Sherry-Lehmann, turns pale when asked about business. ‘We sell three French aperitif whites by the glass,’ he said. ‘People are telling me: “no French wines – give me a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc”. I don’t think it’ll last after we and the French kiss and make up.’

At Chanterelle, a major restaurant in SoHo, the wine director Roger Dagorn says: ‘I’ve had five or six customers a week say – jokingly and patriotically – that they won’t touch French wines. I don’t respond. I give them what they want.’

But Geraldine Tashjian, proprietor of the Burgundy Wine Company, in Chelsea, sees little evidence of animosity toward France among her many Francophile customers. ‘They know that France’s position on the war is not decided by vignerons in the field,’ she says dismissively.

Daniel Johnnes, who is wine director at Montrachet restaurant and owns Jeroboam, a French-oriented wine importing house, has encountered only ‘isolated expressions’ of hostility to French wines. ‘My clientele can separate wine from world politics,’ he says.

George Briguet, owner of Le Perigord, one of the city’s oldest, luxury French restaurants, might not agree. ‘Reservations for the next three months were coming up nicely,’ he told The New York Times. ‘Then the cancellations started to come in, one after the other.’

Written by Howard G Goldberg27 March 2003

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